My special relationship with The Sunday Leader

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Former British Prime Minister and statesman Winston Churchill is credited with the phrase “special relationship” in emphasising the time-tested bonds and enduring affinity between Great Britain and the United States of America.

Pic by Arthur Wamanan

I can think of no better phrase other than those famously Churchillian words to describe my longstanding links with The Sunday Leader as the newspaper celebrates its 18th anniversary.

My special relationship with the Leader began with the birth of the newspaper itself in 1994 and has continued ever since. It consists of four different phases.

The first phase was when the paper started. I was then editing my own Tamil Weekly in Toronto and virtually out of English journalism. Lasantha Wickrematunge or ‘Lassie Boy’ wanted me to write a weekly column on Sri Lankan affairs from far-off Canada.

It was both an opportunity and challenge. The idea of getting someone living abroad to write a regular column on Sri Lanka for a Sri Lankan newspaper was a novel, path-breaking concept.

There was also the question of whether one could sustain a weekly column writing from a distance and keep it interesting too. Lasantha was confident I could do it. So I went for it. Besides providing a chance to write in English again, it also helped me to re-enter the Sri Lankan journalistic sphere after a gap of six years.

I began writing every week and found that I could deliver. But after a few months I had to drop out because running my own weekly and writing the column made heavy demands of my time. The deadlines in particular clashed severely. It was with great reluctance that I ceased writing the column, thereby ending the first phase.

I was compelled to stop my Tamil weekly, the ‘Muncharie,’ in April 1996 due to a terror campaign of violence and intimidation conducted against it by front organisations of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Canada.

I was now able and willing to write for an English newspaper in Sri Lanka again. My former Editor Gamini ‘Gamma’ Weerakoon moved fast and got me to write for The Sunday Island. Lasantha was disappointed but kept pressing me to write a second column for the Leader. I hesitated because I was not sure whether I could write two weekly articles.

In 1997, I took the plunge. Lasantha made me the ‘Roving Correspondent’ of the paper. My column was called ‘Searchlight’. Being the roving correspondent of the Leader opened out new vistas for me. I could write on anything I wanted. “You are the roving correspondent. Rove anywhere you want machang,” Lassie told me. Thus began my second phase with the Leader, which continued till 1999.

The third phase too commenced in 1999. Actually it was a transformation of status. The real identity of the ‘Roving Correspondent’ had been a well-guarded secret though some guessed or assessed who it was. But now my stint at The Island had ended. The time was opportune for me to write openly under my name for Leader.

So like the caterpillar breaking out of its cocoon as a butterfly, the ‘Roving Correspondent’ emerged as D.B.S. Jeyaraj. ‘Searchlight’ changed into ‘Cross Currents’. This third phase at the Leader lasted for eight years from 1999 -2007.

This phase was most productive. From writing one column every week I began writing two or sometimes three articles per week. It was during these years that I got a more-or-less permanent sub-editor to sub my copy regularly in the form of Marianne David.

Later when ‘The Morning Leader’ was started by Leader publications with Sonali Samarasinghe as Editor, I wrote another weekly column, ‘Minor Matters’. In a bid to promote the federal idea, I also started another special column, ‘The F-Word,’ for The Sunday Leader.

Like all good things, this third phase too had to end. It did so in 2007, resulting in a brief rupture in relations with Lassie. As I have stated before, this break had nothing to do with any restrictions being imposed on my freedom to write. I reiterate that both Lasantha and Sonali allowed me absolute independence when writing for The Sunday Leader and The Morning Leader respectively.

I left Leader and joined the team at The Nation. When ownership changed and unacceptable situations arose, I quit in 2008 and started writing for Daily Mirror. I continue to write for the paper.

Meanwhile, things took a turn for the worse. My friendship with Lasantha was now restored and we were exploring the possibilities of my writing a weekly essay for the paper. Sadly, this was not to be so!

On that fateful day of 8 January 2009, four cowardly assassins brutally attacked Lasantha Wickrematunge in broad daylight while he was on his way to office. Taken to hospital, he underwent emergency surgery. However, the courageous editor of The Sunday Leader succumbed to his injuries and passed away hours later.

So ended the life of a close friend and fearless Editor who remained unbowed and unafraid until the very end. The journalistic legacy he left behind, however, did not end. The torch was passed on to other hands to keep the flame burning.

Lasantha’s elder brother and Managing Director Lal(raj) Wickrematunge took over the reins of editorial management. A new Editor was found – Frederica Jansz took up the formidable challenge of editing the Leader.

Lal too was a good friend of mine. In fact I enjoyed ‘spirited’ conversations with Lal more than Lassie as the younger sibling was a teetotaller. Freddie or Frederica too was a friend though I am yet to see her in the flesh. I had been writing regularly for Montage, the monthly magazine edited by her.

With two good friends at the helm and because of the inspiring memory of Lasantha Wickrematunge, I began writing again for the Leader. Thus began my fourth and current phase with the Leader. Unlike the earlier phases, it has not been possible to write regularly.

While continuing to write for Daily Mirror regularly, my articles also appear occasionally in the Leader. As stated earlier, I have not been able to write every week as in the past but the ‘Leader link’ remains strong and firm and it is my intention to keep writing for Leader whenever possible.

This is not merely due to Lassie Boy’s memory or the personal links with Frederica or Lal. It is due more to the editorial traditions and norms established by Lasantha at the Leader that are being maintained by Frederica.

I state with all sincerity and conviction that despite the prevailing constraints, The Sunday Leader remains true to its credo of being ‘Unbowed and Unafraid’. It is the only English newspaper in Sri Lanka where one can state the facts boldly and articulate opinions bravely without restrictions.

In the bleak desert of conformity around us, The Sunday Leader remains an oasis of openness where one can – despite prevailing constraints – speak truth to power.

It is for this reason mainly that I continue to live out this fourth phase of my special relationship with The Sunday Leader by contributing to its editorial columns whenever I can.

Eighteen is a magic number that is very often regarded as heralding the coming of age. The German word ‘Bildungsroman’ is the name of the literary genre relating to coming of age tales and themes.

The Sunday Leader at 18 has come of age and is embarking upon its own ‘Bildungsroman’. My best wishes to the newspaper and all those associated with it. Here’s to the future!

‘Hasta la Victoria siempre’.

(This article appears in “The Sunday Leader” 18th Anniversary special supplement of June 17th 2012)